President Joe Biden's national vaccine mandate sparked a lot of debate and set political seismometers jumping even more frantically than usual. Most commentary has focused on two issues: Is forcing people to take vaccines a good idea, and will the courts sign off on the government's authority to do so? Those are great discussions to have, though anything involving "forcing people" should be a non-starter by default. But another important question is raised by the president's gambit to displace the Afghanistan fiasco from the headlines: How, in the United States, can one guy just impose his preferred policies, whether they're good, bad, or indifferent?
To be fair, not everybody overlooked this point:
"There's no authority for this," former Rep. Justin Amash (L-Mich.) noted. "This is legislative action that bypasses the legislative branch. If you care about representative government—if you're consistent regardless of who's president—then it doesn't matter that you like the policy; this mandate is an abuse of power."
Since this is America in 2021, the replies to Amash quickly degenerated into arguments over the benefits of vaccines (or their allegedly nefarious side effects) and assertions that the courts will certainly rule for/against the move. But again, how can one person do this in a country with a Constitution that lays out the limited powers of the state, and provides for two other co-equal branches of government? It's as if the president has become a king—and many people embrace the development, so long as they like the outcome. In fact, that's a fair interpretation of the system under which we live, and the direction in which it's evolved from the beginning.
"We elect a king for four years and give him absolute power within certain limits, which after all he can interpret for himself," then-Secretary of State William Seward observed of the presidency during the Civil War. Admittedly, he described President Abraham Lincoln, whose powers were enhanced by the crisis. But it's not like the presidency snapped back within benign limits after the fighting ended.
"Great Britain is a republic, with a hereditary president, while the United States is a monarchy with an elective king," the Knoxville Journal snarked in 1896 during the presidency of Grover Cleveland, who was one of the less autocratic chief executives. But the implicit and growing power of the presidency remained, even when the office was held by somebody who exercised a modicum of restraint.
The fault lies in the Constitution itself, claimed conservative legal scholar F. H. Buckley in his 2014 book The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America. He pointed out that all Anglosphere countries were trending towards concentrated executive power (something only accelerated by the pandemic), but claimed that America's presidential system, despite built-in checks and balances, in practice lent itself to what he called "elective monarchy."
"The constitutional presidency, as the Framers conceived it, was designed to stand against the popular will as often as not, with the president wielding the veto power to restrain Congress when it transgressed its constitutional bounds," wrote Healy in his 2008 book. "In contrast, the modern president considers himself the tribune of the people, promising transformative action and demanding the power to carry it out."
Claiming to act in response to popular demand is how a president who, last year, told supporters "Executive authority that my progressive friends talk about is way beyond the bounds" can pivot months later to issuing vaccine mandates for private-sector workers—and be applauded for the move by supporters who would be horrified if an elective monarch they didn't like exercised such authority.
"This is the correct policy. And you know you can't get it through Congress… so what is the problem?" one commenter responded to Amash's warning about executive overreach.
But presidents enthusiastic about power don't come in only one partisan flavor.
"I have an Article 2, where I have the right to do whatever I want as President," then-President Donald Trump told an enthusiastic conservative gathering in 2019. The same year he "ordered" U.S. companies to stop doing business in China before backing off amid pushback from even his allies.
Unsurprisingly, Trump was accused of acting like a monarch, just as his predecessor, President Barack Obama, was charged with kingly pretensions, and so was President George W. Bush before him. And the accusations were spot on—they all acted unilaterally and built on the precedents of those who went before them.
"Ease up on the executive actions, Joe," The New York Times editorial board advised the current White House occupant just a week into his presidency. "They are not meant to serve as an end run around the will of Congress."
Obviously, that advice fell on deaf ears. But it always does, because American institutions lend themselves to increasingly unilateral actions by presidents. And, while people mouth pretty words about democracy, a lot of our neighbors don't really care how things get done so long as they like the results.
According to the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, "87 percent of Americans say that a democratic political system is a good way of governing the country." That's great, but "one-third (33 percent) of Americans have at some point in the last three years said that they think having 'a strong leader who doesn't have to bother with Congress or elections' would be a good system of government. And about a quarter (24 percent) have said at some point that 'army rule' would be a good system. Put another way, while fewer than one in 10 Americans consistently supports an authoritarian option, a third of Americans 'dabble' in authoritarianism."
Before you ask, in the report Democrats were more inclined to bypass elections while Republicans were more inclined to bypass Congress. Independents came off as especially authoritarianism-curious. Yes, that's a minority of Americans—but it's a big minority, and probably enough to motivate politicians inclined to do as they please, anyway.
The answer, then, is that Biden issued a unilateral vaccine mandate because the presidency has always had monarchical tendencies and, through multiple administrations, chief executives succumbed to the temptation to exercise power and leave more for their successors. The courts may ultimately restrain the president, but you can bet that will leave many Americans angry that their king was thwarted.